The Trinity Toll Road Is a Real Estate Play to Boost One Corner of Downtown Dallas. Period.
Lurking beneath all that mummery and flim-flam, there is a real purpose for the Trinity toll road. The trick will be getting anybody to admit it.
My big hope for this coming year would be that 2015 will be The Year of Talking Honestly. The bitterness and recrimination hanging in malevolent clouds over the 16-year-old Trinity toll road debate really have very little to do with the nature of the project itself. It's about roads, parks and drainage. How malevolent can you get about drainage?
The anger and angst have to do with two things: 1) The perception that people are lying about the project, and 2) The fact that people are lying about the project. Every six months new and fantastic justifications for it are invented. Now it's a bloody civil rights project, for God's sake.
And after years of telling us that it's all a done deal, totally designed, approved and paid for, the mayor now is telling us to withhold judgment because the project hasn't been designed yet. Then he tells us it will provide major traffic relief for downtown. Then he tells us it will be a modest country lane that will carry hardly any traffic at all.
If the mayor and his friends would only try to tell us the truth about it, they might actually find they have some real selling points to work with. In recent months, I have come to believe that I do know what the Trinity toll road is all about. I disagree with the purpose. But I am aware many others will find it worthwhile.
The real purpose of the Trinity toll road, as I have become convinced over the last two months, is to serve and spur the redevelopment of the southwestern corner of downtown Dallas. The favored plan calls for access to and from the toll road at Corinth Street, which would feed traffic into the southwest corner, probably along Lamar Street.
What's so special about the southwest corner of downtown? The southwest corner of the Dallas central business district is the most active and least talked about venue in downtown, which may be only fitting. It is the bastion of some of the city's most powerful families -- the sort of people who never complain, never explain.
It was that way 37 years ago when Dallas City Manager George Schrader informed the City Council he had been negotiating for more than a year with Woodbine, the real estate arm of Ray Hunt, heir to the fortune of legendary Texas wildcatter H.L. Hunt. Oh, and, in addition to just talking, Schrader told the council, he had been swapping city-owned land for some of Hunt's property in the southwest corner near historic Union Station.
Oh, and, in addition, Schrader said, he had agreed to build a new sports arena on some of the land he had swapped from Hunt, right next to the gleaming new glass-walled hotel Hunt was building in the southwest corner. Oh, and the city would be floating bonds, of course, to finance the construction. Oh, but these would be the type of bonds that don't require voter approval, so there would be no need to bother the voters at all about any of this, because it was all already a done deal.
In the Dallas City Hall of that era, a city council that was staring a done deal in the eye, especially a done deal with Ray Hunt's name on it, had but one choice. As a body the council nodded and said unanimously to Schrader, "Yes, sir." And it was done.
The Reunion Arena deal was done entirely according to the same mechanism that has continued to serve the southwest corner of downtown ever since -- the lips of the city's business Brahmins to the always obsequious ears of successive city managers. Hunt has been joined often by the owners of The Dallas Morning News in an uphill battle to improve the southwest corner, always by seeking what Woodbine and the News proudly call "public/private partnerships." In my own view, those would be deals where private parties use government money to kite their own profits, but that is how I would see it, isn't it?
Mainly the Hunt/Decherd/Dealey/Moroney forces have sought to improve their little corner of the world by pushing for an ever-expanding city-owned convention center and for a city-owned convention hotel, by lobbying to bend the light rail system far from its natural course to take in their corner and by pushing for other even more speculative adventures.
But in spite of their heroic efforts on its behalf, the southwest corner never seems to quite take root. The commercial excitement downtown always seems to yearn northward toward Uptown on the other side of the Woodall Rodgers Expressway, while the residential buzz seems to want to move east toward, of all places, Deep Ellum and Baylor Hospital. It's pretty bad when you've invested all that political clout but you lose out anyway to a scaggy joint like Deep Ellum.
But they don't give up, and why would they? The one advantage the Brahmins in the southwest corner can bring to their own cause again and again is their absolute dominion over the city manager system, a control born of the newspaper's raw political power and of Hunt/Woodbine's longstanding and assiduous cultivation. That's why, for every ounce of sheer market force pulling the city away from them, the southwest corner Brahmins have been able to martial 10 pounds of government leverage to tug the action back to themselves. In the process they have created the closest thing in Dallas to a socialized realm.
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Right now the pressure is greater than ever to use government money to force the market their way. Vigorous efforts are underway to pull the second downtown light rail alignment to the convention hotel in their part of town, even though that route has been deemed by studies to be the least effective and most expensive of all the possible alignments through downtown that have been analyzed -- so expensive DART won't do it without a direct subsidy from the city.
Perhaps the most illuminative quote I've seen on that issue came four years ago from then DART board chairman William Velasco. Velasco said of the detour-to-the-southwest-corner route for DART downtown, "It didn't make any sense to me at first, but now it makes all the sense in the world."
Yes, that would be after the chit-chat. No sense before. All the sense after.
An effort is underway to pull high-speed rail into the southwest corner of downtown, even though the Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains proposed for the Houston-Dallas line can reach a quarter mile in length, roughly from City Hall across downtown to Main Street, so that a depot capable of handling multiple trains would be immense. That must be why the proponents of the line are holding out for a station in southern Dallas instead.
Union Station, a creaky old thing, already is home to two DART light rail lines and the TRE commuter train to Fort Worth, as well as serving as the city's only Amtrak depot. In the not too distant future it will gain another occupant in the trolley line to Oak Cliff.
And now I'm starting to hear earnest talk again about putting a major entertainment venue in the southwest corner. This time it's a baseball stadium. Just a couple years ago former mayor Laura Miller was going around town offering to lobby for a casino on the site of the torn-down Reunion Arena, saying it would be "a great shot in the arm for our city."
But where in the world could any of this stuff be put? So much of the privately held land in that corner of town is held by A. H. Belo, the company that still owns The Dallas Morning News and used to own WFAA. But maybe that could change. In a story that fell in the pond with amazingly few ripples, the News' own intrepid Brandon Formby came across city documents two months ago identifying the newspaper and television station sites as "potential redevelopment blocks." He quoted a mid-level Belo executive who has since left the company as saying, "There's a lot of ideas you could come up with for this site." But the executive assured Formby nothing definite was on the drawing boards.
Sure. But if you were holding a major investment in a regional daily newspaper today, would you be interested in a scheme that might allow you to rescue some of your money by selling the dirt beneath the paper at a really good price? Just saying.
I believe the real purpose of the toll road is to provide a discrete point of ingress and egress for the bustling recreation, convention and transportation center in the southwest corner of downtown that major land owners there have dreamed of for decades. And while I may be snide and negative about it, I am fully aware that the concept would resonate like hell with lots of people in this city. I think thousands of people out there would say, "Damn, man, why didn't you just tell us this is what that toll road is for?"
Of course, it has never been the way of the Brahmins in the southwest corner to speak publicly about their plans. Since the Reunion Arena deal over a third of a century ago, they have trusted in the art of whispers behind closed doors. But times have changed. Maybe the city has gotten smarter. It would be hard not to get smarter than the city council that OK'd the original Reunion Arena deal.
The better bet now, even for lucky Brahmins, is to show some clean cards. They might even surprise themselves and win an honest game. I don't think the other option is healthy for anybody right now. That's what people are really tired of. It's not even the road. It's the insulting bullshit.